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A political ammunition

Print edition : Feb 11, 2005 T+T-

The Banerjee Committee report is likely to dominate the campaign for the Assembly elections despite the Election Commission's caution.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi and Patna

THE war of words that followed the submission of the interim report of the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee on the Godhra train fire was not unexpected. The report and its basic thrust - that the Sabarmati Express had, on February 27, 2002, caught fire by accident and that there was no conspiracy behind the incident - was unacceptable to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its associates in the Sangh Parivar and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Their ire stemmed from the fact that the conclusions of the report contradicted their justification - the train was set on fire as part of a "vile anti-national conspiracy" - of the 2002 anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat that followed the Godhra incident. Hence the BJP and some of its allies in the NDA disparaged the contents of the report and the timing of its submission as a political stunt engineered by Railway Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad and his associates in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with an eye on the coming Assembly elections in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana.

In contrast, the constituents and supporters of the UPA government at the Centre, the Congress, the RJD and the Left parties, hailed the report as a major step in the direction of unravelling the truth about the Godhra incident and the communal slaughter that followed in Gujarat in 2002. Broadly, these parties described the report as indicating the omissions and commissions of the BJP and its allies in investigating the Gujarat violence. According to them, the Banerjee Committee report suggested that the BJP-led governments in Gujarat and the Centre had inquired into the violence with preconceived notions dictated by a communal perspective and failed to take into cognizance several key factors related to the Godhra incident. The conflict between the two viewpoints is likely to persist and is bound to impact the national political scene from time to time.

The NDA seems to be overwhelmed by apprehensions about the immediate effect of the interim report, particularly on the minority community, in the three States going to the polls in February. The appeal made by Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar - who was the Railway Minister in the NDA government when the Godhra incident occurred - to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) on January 18 points clearly to this apprehension. Nitish Kumar's petition to the CEC, given within 24 hours of the submission of the report, sought a ban on its use for political campaigning in the Assembly elections. Nitish Kumar's argument was that the Godhra incident was a sensitive issue and that the Election Commission (E.C.) had barred political parties from using visuals of the burnt trains and other materials during the 2002 Assembly elections in Gujarat. He claimed out that the Banerjee Committee had shown "undue hurry" in submitting an interim report though it had admitted that the inquiry was incomplete.

Indications are that the E.C. has found some merit in the plea. Talking to journalists in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy said that the report should not become an election issue as it could flare up intense and negative passions among sections of the electorate. The CEC, however, made no reference to Nitish Kumar's appeal.

The CEC's response, however, does not seem to have diminished the NDA's disquiet. The refrain among NDA leaders is that the constituents of the UPA may find ways to highlight the findings of the report without directly referring to it. The anxiety is the highest in Bihar, where the minority community forms a significant component of the electorate and the NDA has to contend with charismatic and clever campaigners like Lalu Prasad. Talking to Frontline in Patna, Nitish Kumar said that leaders like Lalu Prasad would still try to make use of the report for election propaganda. He added that his party and other NDA constituents would keep a close watch on the RJD's campaign to spot violations of the CEC's directives.

On his part, Lalu Prasad has formally assured the CEC that he would abide by the Commission's directives. But, the Railway Minister's speeches, delivered before the CEC made his remarks, gave the impression that he would go all out to make the report one of the major themes of his campaign. He pointed out that the report "fully establishes that Muslims were not involved in the Godhra incident" and that "the fire emanated from within the coach without use of any explosive from outside". He added that the real conspiracy was hatched by the Sangh Parivar to massacre thousands of innocent people in the name of an accidental fire in a train. Lalu Prasad said that he was initiating punitive action against several officials in his Ministry who had "acted in connivance with Sangh Parivar elements" and the NDA, including Nitish Kumar, to cover up the truth.

The CEC's stand has undoubtedly divested the RJD president of an opportunity to employ his oratorical skills to highlight the report. However, political observers in Bihar believe that the Banerjee Committee report, the Gujarat carnage and the Sangh Parivar's role in it would come up as major points of discussion among the electorate throughout the campaign. R.K. Jha, a political science professor from Begusarai, said: "Lalu Prasad or his colleagues and supporters do not have to specifically refer to the report anymore to bring it up. The very fact that it has been submitted and that it has been done by the Ministry headed by him has helped revive the debate on Gujarat. This is bound to benefit the RJD and its allies, especially in rural areas."

Ahsanuddin Amanullah, a lawyer practising in the Patna High Court, agrees with Jha. Amanullah says that though sections of the electorate, including some Muslims belonging to the upper and middle classes, may see the report as a political drama by the Railway Minister, a major section of the community in Bihar would see it essentially as a reaffirmation of his secular credentials.

Even in the backdrop of such reactions, the political opponents of the RJD alliance, the NDA and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) led by Ramvilas Paswan, Lalu Prasad's colleague in the Union Cabinet are trying to turn the minorities' attention to the RJD's record of development work in Bihar in the past 15 years, with particular reference to its "failure" to improve the socio-economic status of Muslims. A 2004 study sponsored by the State Minorities Commission has come in handy for these parties. The study stated that the socio-economic status of the Muslims in Bihar was, in all aspects, lower than that of the general population in the State. It said that Muslims as a community had lower incomes, lower levels of education, higher death rates, and consumed lower quantities of nutritional food. It noted that almost all poverty alleviation programmes had generally bypassed the community.

Talking to Frontline, Ramvilas Paswan tried to draw a connection between the Minorities Commission study and the Banerjee Committee report. He claimed that the report only reiterated what was already known and that Lalu Prasad was trying to use it in the elections to cover up his party's poor track record in improving the lot of the Muslim community. Paswan said: "Lalu Prasad knows that there is tremendous resentment among the minorities against the 15-year-old RJD misrule, and he is trying to use this report as a shield to ward off their anger." Paswan believes that Lalu Prasad would not be able to achieve the objective.

The RJD leader refused to respond in detail to Paswan's observations. He would only say that the RJD does not have to take a certificate on secularism from Paswan or people like him. "You can come up with hundreds of studies, but nothing can suppress the RJD's commitment to secularism or to the uplift of the minorities." The Railway Minister added that he and his party did not need an inquiry report on Godhra to establish its secular credentials. The elections results, he was confident, would put to rest all "the canards" being spread about his party and its government.